Monday, July 4, 2022

‘High-tech primitive sound’: Béla Fleck talks latest Grammy-winning bluegrass album

The banjo virtuoso will tour through Greenfield Lake Amphitheater Tuesday night in support of 'My Bluegrass Heart'

BÉLA FLECK – “My Bluegrass Heart” rehearsal, Nashville – 5.26.21 Photograph by Alan MESSER | www.alanmesser.com

It’s been 24 years since banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck has toured with a new bluegrass album. Yet, he has been anything but inert.

During that time frame, Fleck released 22 albums (56 overall), played hundreds of shows and toured with innumerable artists, plus won 12 Grammys — 15 in total, including for his latest album “My Bluegrass Heart.”

In support of the double LP, his tour will stop at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater Tuesday night.

“I knew I would always want to make music in this vein,” Fleck told Port City Daily. “It’s something that I miss when I’m busy exploring other musical forms.”

The world-renowned guitarist crosses genres as prolifically as his fingers pick a five-string. He has steered the banjo into the annals of jazz, rock, primitive music, pop, even classical arrangements (he was named after Hungarian composer Béla Bartok). 

But bluegrass is where it all began.

“I think of it as a high-tech primitive sound,” Fleck explained. “Even certain folks from New York City, like myself, find it stunning.”

Fleck remembered as a child being “transfixed” by the twangy, jangly popping sounds heard in the opening credits of “The Beverly Hillbillies” in the ‘50s.

“‘The Ballad of Jed Clampett’ opened my consciousness to banjo music for the first time,” Fleck said. “It was Earl Scruggs in his prime.”

Scruggs — who played with the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, and is known for popularizing the sound — “activated many banjo players” back then. Fleck was among them.

Gifted his first guitar by his grandfather in upstate New York, Fleck told NPR his first lesson came from a stranger on a bus who showed him how to tune the banjo. Thereafter, the instrument became Fleck’s obsession. 

In the early years, he taught himself, locked away in his room, before studying under the tutelage of Tony Trischka — a Grammy-nominated five-string player and 2007 International Bluegrass Music Association Banjo Player of the Year.

“He showed up and I knew, almost immediately, that this guy had it,” Trischka stated about Fleck on his website.

The two have collaborated throughout the years, including on 1981’s “Fiddle Tunes for Banjo” and 1992’s “Solo Banjo Works.” Trischka appears on “My Bluegrass Heart;” in fact, the album is a celebration of bluegrass’ old guard assembling with the new.

“I started out recording with a new lineup, but then I thought, ‘If I’m not making a bluegrass project in 20-something years, why wouldn’t I include the other phenomenal musicians from that original team?’” Fleck said. “It grew outward from there.”

Almost two dozen musicians are featured on “My Bluegrass Heart”: on mandolins are Sam Bush, David Grisman, Sierra Hull, Dominick Leslie, Chris Thile; on guitars are Cody Kilby, Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings, Bryan Sutton; on fiddles are Michael Cleveland, Billy Contreras, Stuart Duncan, Andy Leftwich; on basses are Paul Kowert, Royal Masat, Edgar Meyer, Mark Schatz; on banjos are Noam Pikelny, Tony Trischka and Béla Fleck; and on dobro is Jerry Douglas.

“I loved Billy Contreras’s crazy fiddling and of course Chris Thile kicks butt,” Fleck said of the youngblood. “So did Sierra Hull, Mike Cleveland, and Molly Tuttle. The field is rich these days.” 

Fleck’s son also can be credited for the 63-year-old’s return to his musical roots. “My Bluegrass Heart,” released last fall, came to be after his son was recovering from a hospitalization due to liver disease that almost took his life. 

“He’s fine now,” the musician assured. “But time was marching along so fast, so I really wanted to reconnect with my bluegrass community.”

Fleck also lost two of his longtime friends and idols over the last two years during the album’s making. He dedicated “My Bluegrass Heart” to guitarist Tony Rice and jazz pianist Chick Corea.

“Tony changed the face of bluegrass guitar and maybe bluegrass music itself,” Fleck said. 

The two performed and collaborated together many times in the studio and onstage — at least until Rice stopped performing in 2013, due to arthritis and the loss of his singing voice from muscle tension dysphonia. Rice passed away Christmas Day in 2020 at his home in Reidsville, N.C.

“He had the ability to bring out the best in all of us, and his ensemble ability has never been surpassed,” Fleck said.

Rice performed on both 1988’s “Drive” and 1999’s “Bluegrass Sessions,” the two predecessors to “My Bluegrass Heart.” Fleck praised all the acoustic guitarists who picked up the baton in Rice’s stead.

“Billy [Strings] is a powerhouse,” Fleck said. “He was very cognizant of being in the Tony Rice guitar seat, as all the guitarists on this were. It’s a hot seat, but he and all of them delivered. Some of the songs were right up his alley and for some he had to stretch.”

Jazz pianist Chick Corea — known for playing with Miles Davis on “Bitches Brew” — also played a prominent role in Fleck’s musical career. The banjoist has said in multiple interviews throughout the years he attempted to play the five-string the way Corea ran the keys. 

A jazz fusionist, combining myriad styles, Corea included percussive elements, and according to music website All About Jazz played “dominant chords, chromatic and diminished scale runs, and rapid-fire phrasing.” 

“Performing with him was such an honor,” Fleck said.

The two won the Latin Grammy for “The Enchantment,” blending jazz, bluegrass, rock, Flamenco and gospel. They toured extensively upon its release, which inspired the live album “Two.”

Corea passed away from a short battle with cancer in February 2021 at his home in Florida. “My Bluegrass Heart” title was chosen in homage to the pianist’s 10th studio album, “My Spanish Heart.”

“I miss Tony and Chick both, and weirdly they both feel like they’re still here, playing important roles in my life,” Fleck said. 

Fleck’s world travels have come from numerous band experiences. He got his start in the Tasty Licks, before joining Spectrum and then New Grass Revival in the early ‘80s. In 1988, with Victor Wooten, he formed Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and with their second album, “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo,” charted number one on Billboard Top Contemporary Jazz Albums. 

Throughout the years, Fleck has taken up varied side projects and performed with well-known acts, including Dolly Parton, Dave Matthews Band, Jerry Garcia and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. 

He also made a 2008 documentary about the roots of the banjo immigrating with enslaved Africans into the South. “Throw Down Your Heart” shows the intricacies of the instrument, stereotypes often associated with it, and masterful performances and duels with Gambian players. Fleck also ended up recording an album, “Throw Down Your Heart,” with some of the players, including Malian kora master Toumani Diabate.

“I don’t rule out future bluegrass-oriented projects,” Fleck said about the possibility of adding to the trilogy of “Drive,” “Bluegrass Sessions,” and “My Bluegrass Heart.” “We could move that number up!”

Fleck’s three-pick style utilizes the Scruggs technique: playing with the thumb, middle, and index fingers. He has a self-described “angular” way of picking “weird intervals and patterns” that bring a vibrancy and sense of joy to his music-making.

“While I deeply love the form of bluegrass, I don’t feel bound by it, and am determined to pursue diverse directions within it,” he said.

Vertigo,” the first track on “My Bluegrass Heart,” comprises a dizzying feat of runs, practically sounding like circular movement — a pastiche of sound on the condition itself.

In some odd twist of life imitating art, Fleck said he had a bout of it after writing the song. While he admittedly named it such because it seemed funny, living through it was a different experience altogether, he said: “Vertigo is no joke.”

The song was created from basic Indian rhythms often taught to music students, Fleck detailed.

“A section showed up with two bars of 5 and one in 6, which add up to 16, and is in 4/4,” he said. “I love music that sounds like it is in different time signatures but is actually in 4/4 and you can tap your foot through it.”

Performing “Vertigo” live, he said, is even more intense. The band introduces additional “stomach-churning sections.”

In Wilmington, Fleck will be joined by touring band members Mike Cleveland, Justin Moses, Mark Schatz, Cody Kilby and Jacob Jolliff. 

“They are all at the highest level,” he said. “We’ve been practicing hard and it’s gonna be killer.”

Tickets are $39 and can be purchased here. Doors open at 6 p.m.


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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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